Attorney General William Barr used his press conference in advance of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report to issue an emphatic statement about the report’s conclusions: Russia had indeed interfered with the 2016 presidential election, but neither Donald Trump nor his associates cooperated with them.
Barr ventured beyond an explanation of Justice Department processes to frame the report’s conclusions for the public. Using language that echoed the President’s own, he repeated a half-dozen times that there had been “no collusion” between Trump’s team and Russian officials.
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation,” Barr said. “As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion. And as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”
It was a performance that cheered the White House, incensed the President’s opponents and all but ensured that Barr will remain in the center of a growing storm of questions in the wake of the report’s release. Barr’s statement was “shockingly bad,” says a House Democratic aide on the Judiciary Committee. I “wouldn’t have thought it could be worse, but it was,” says another House Democratic aide.
Barr has drawn criticism from Democrats since his nomination as attorney general, and his appearance Thursday is unlikely to alleviate their concerns, including his statement that White House lawyers were given a redacted version of the report in advance of its public release. When asked by a reporter if it was an “impropriety” for him to “spin the report before people are able to read it,” Barr simply said “no” and abruptly ended the press conference.
White House staff and allies of the president gleefully tweeted out quotes from Barr’s press conference about the report’s conclusions, highlighting the “no collusion” finding. The President himself tweeted an image borrowed from the television show Game of Thrones, celebrating the end of the investigation as “Game Over”:
Democrats sounded a different tune. “We cannot take Attorney General Barr’s word for it,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler tweeted.
Democrats’ criticism of Barr began before he took the job. As a private citizen, Barr wrote an unsolicited letter in the summer of 2018 expressing skepticism that Trump obstructed justice. “Mueller’s obstruction theory is fatally misconceived,” Barr wrote at the time.
The criticism ramped up after Barr was confirmed and Mueller finished his work. The special counsel declined to make a judgment on whether Trump had obstructed justice and left the decision to Barr, who, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, determined that the evidence was “not sufficient” to conclude Trump obstructed justice.
“What Barr has done essentially is to frame the message without providing any substance,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former state attorney general and a member of the Judiciary Committee, told TIME after Barr’s letter outlining Mueller’s conclusions and revealing his decision on obstruction. “He has created headlines without access to the real information.”
House Democrats demanded Wednesday night that Barr cancel the press conference, saying it “is unnecessary and inappropriate, and appears designed to shape public perceptions of the report before anyone can read it.” The criticism sharpened after he spoke.
Officials at the Justice Department were aware of the stakes of the moment, and acknowledged that Barr’s choices will shape public perceptions about the outcome of the nearly two-year-long investigation. “There’s a lot of things coming down the pike at us, there’s a lot of decisions that are going to need to be made,” one of Barr’s top aides told TIME days before special counsel Mueller submitted his report, “and it will be kind of viewed through the lens of how [Barr] handles things.”
Many who support Barr say he came out of semi-retirement to accept this job at age 68— after holding it decades earlier under George H. W. Bush— because he wanted to help guide the Justice Department through this storm and protect the institution. “He views this as an opportunity to… preserve and enhance the reputation of the department,” Rosenstein told TIME just before Mueller sent in his final report.
To be sure, investigating whether members of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia was a key mandate for the special counsel, and as the top law enforcement officer in the nation, Barr is empowered to announce and explain those findings. But the White House’s decision not to assert executive privilege over any aspects of the report, which Barr confirmed Thursday, makes the political reality for the attorney general even more contentious. If none of the redactions came from the White House, that means they all came from the Justice Department. So all complaints congressional Democrats have about material scrubbed from the report will be aimed at Barr alone.
“Barr’s already solidified himself as fully a member of Team Trump, not necessarily the attorney general for the people, but an attorney general for the president,” Molly Claflin, Chief Oversight Counsel at American Oversight and former counsel to Democratic ranking members Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee, told TIME before Barr’s press conference. “The White House has seen that and it gives them some cover to let Barr do essentially their work in this case.”
Barr had previously said he will testify before Congress in the coming weeks, ensuring the attorney general will continue to take fire from Democrats as this episode in American history reaches its dramatic conclusion.
-With additional reporting by Alana Abramson/Washington